Books

A shakedown of recent technology tomes.

The science of the oven

By Herve This
Columbia University Press, £16.95

Why does flour go lumpy in hot water? Why do liquids harden when heated and solids melt? Why does the surface of roasted meat brown? And why are we using techniques from the Middle Ages (with whisks, fire and saucepans) when we are sending probes into the solar system? So asks Hervé This. The author describes cooking as “the last ‘chemical art’ left unsystematised until the creation of its scientific discipline, ‘molecular gastronomy’”.

In 1988, French chemist Hervé This and Oxford-based physicist Nicholas Kurti created ‘molecular gastronomy’. It used new processes, tools and ingredients. Although This now says that it was flawed, its successor ‘molecular cuisine’ is practised by top chefs worldwide, including Heston Blumenthal, who was inspired by This. These chefs are famous for using nitrogen to make ice cream and, typically, using lab-style equipment to distil, infuse and gel.

The book is broken up into enthralling sub-headings like: The War of the Shallot; The Egg at 65 Degrees; From Puff Pastry to Noodle; Let us Eliminate Those Lumps!; Calcium Phosphate, the Cheese Cement; The Cloudiness of Pastis; and The Colour of Emulsions. However, despite having bite-sized sections, there is still a substantial amount of chemistry to chew on. For instance, This uses mathematical formulae to describe culinary processes; so if G is for gas, H is for oil and E is for water (in French), then:  “an emulsion of the oil-in-water type, such as cream, will be designated by the formula H/E. Whipped cream is (G+H)/E...” 

This asks culinary questions (for example, what gives cornichons their crunch?) and gives us scientific answers (enzymes called pectin methylesterases). Indeed, see how many of his queries you can get right (answers at bottom of page).

Q1 How do you keep squid tender when cooking?

Q2 How can you make artificial caviar?

Q3 How can you tell if you’ve got a good piece of meat?

Q4 How old is the noodle?

There is an impressive depth and breadth of information here and This has a chatty narrative style. The Science of the Oven is a hybrid of cooking-manual-with-tips and culinary chemistry/physics. More for the ‘laboratory’ than kitchen-sink cook.

Reviewed by Amy Spurling

Seeing further: science and the Royal Society

Edited by Bill Bryson
Harper Press, £25

On a damp November night in 1660, a dozen men including Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke decided it would be a good idea to form a society to accumulate useful knowledge. Now recognised as the founders of the Royal Society, they set out to answer questions such as why summer is hotter than winter and why, if you place a spider in a circle drawn with unicorn horn powder, it will remain trapped there until it dies.

Some 350 years later, ‘Seeing Further’ celebrates the successes that ensued. Edited by Bill Bryson, its 21 contributors comprise world-renowned scientists, engineers and writers that applaud the men, women and breakthroughs that have shaped our world, without avoiding the unwanted legacies we inherited on the way.

Writer, James Gleick, for one, tells of Robert Boyle’s pride at bringing creatures gasping and vomiting to ‘Death’s door’ in his endlessly useful air pump while biographer Richard Holmes recounts the Society’s covert obsession with ballooning. Henry Petroski, a professor of civil engineering, looks at the great engineers who built the world’s most spectacular bridges, as Richard Dawkins irons out past misinterpretations of Natural Selection.

More philosophically, mathematician Ian Stewart warns that society’s inability to recognise his subject will stunt technological advancement as writer Margaret Werthiem examines how the deeply religious Issac Newton inadvertently sparked recent tensions between science and Christianity. Add Margaret Atwood on the public fear of science, Richard Fortey’s chaos behind biodiversity and more, and the reader surely has a thought-provoking serving of science.

In his conclusion, today’s President of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal, Professor Martin Rees, covers climate change, cryogenics, ethics, and the search for alien life. An aptly eclectic ending to an eclectic book on the very eclectic lives and achievements of scientists and engineers.

Reviewed by science and technology writer Rebecca Pool

Donald Michie: on machine intelligence, biology and more

Edited by Ashwin Srinivasan
Oxford University Press, £25

One of the perks of writing for the IET was doing what I liked to think of as the ‘engineer-as-celebrity’ interview. There was the occasional awkward cuss, one or two near-charlatans, but, at its best, it provided a wonderful opportunity to meet and pick the brains of some of the 20th century’s most creative and influential engineers and scientists. They had some great stories to tell, but few could compare with Donald Michie, whom I interviewed in 1996, following his receipt of the IEE Computing and Control Achievement Award.

His was, by any reckoning, a remarkable life, and it has been captured sympathetically in this collection of Michie’s writings compiled and edited by Professor Ashwin Srinivasan. At the age of 18, Michie had been diverted from taking up an Oxford classics scholarship to join Britain’s wartime code-breakers at Bletchley Park, where he met Alan Turing and gaining a lifelong interest in artificial intelligence and machine learning. After the war he abandoned classics, and studied to become a doctor, before pursuing a ten-year career as a geneticist. By the early 1960s he was playing a leading role in establishing AI as an academic discipline within the UK.

The machine-learning phase occupies a large section of the book. A fascination with the Turing-inspired possibilities of machine learning shaped Michie’s research interests through the greater part of his working life. Similarly, Professor Srinivasan, a staff member at IBM’s India Research Laboratory, specialises in the application of logic programming to machine learning. However, it’s probably fair to say that interest in much of this material is likely to be limited to machine-learning specialists and historians of the early days of AI.

For the more general reader, however, the real value of the book lies in its capacity to reveal the full extent of Michie’s interests and achievements. There’s some wonderful stuff from the Bletchley Park days, where Michie writes movingly of the sense of camaraderie and exhilaration that came from working “Each for all and all for each”, complemented by material on Michie’s ground-breaking genetics research, along with some examples of his political writings. Michie was a lifelong socialist, and joined the Communist Party during the Cold War.

Between 1952 and 1962, working with his second wife Anne McLaren, Michie conducted a series of investigations into mouse genetics, which laid the foundations for modern techniques of in vitro fertilisation. As an Oxford student he’d kept pet mice in the kitchen of his digs, and as the mice began to breed, he noticed that the patterns of fur on successive generations did not correspond with received views on genetics. This observation was the foundation for all Michie’s subsequent investigations into genetics. Mice were also the inspiration for the most delightful items in the whole book - three short articles on keeping mice written by Michie for the children’s section of the Daily Worker, the official newspaper of the British Communist party.

Not a book to read from cover to cover; nevertheless Professor

Srinivasan has assembled an intriguing and sometimes touching portrait of a complex and multi-faceted individual.

Donald Michie and Anne McLaren were killed in a car accident in July 2007.

Reviewed by Roger Dettmer, former E&T features editor and editor of the IET magazine Engineering & Technology Education

Michie: his research was shaped by fascination with possibilities of machine learning.

Answers to ‘The Science of the Oven’ quiz

A1 By freezing it, because ice crystals attack the bonds between fibres and thereby tenderise the meat.

A2 Make ‘pearls’ - intense flavours sealed in jelled alginates.

A3 Usually, cooks check for marbling, buttery texture and fine grain; but in molecular cooking hyperfrequency sensors can be used to measure maturation (an electromagnetic wave measures the dielectric anisotropy of the meat - the anisotropy of the reactions to the hyperfrequencies diminishes with maturation).

A4 Debatable, but examples have been found in China that date back to the Neolithic period.

Tom Kidd

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